By Raul Dias
Of all the food, drink and music festivals in the world, Munich’s Oktoberfest is perhaps the most misunderstood one. For one, despite the first part of its name, the annual 16-day-long beer festival is actually held in September. With a few days customarily spilling over into October (this year, on till October 3, having started on September 16 ).
Celebrated first in 1810 to commemorate the wedding celebrations of King Ludwig I, it is called die Wiesn by the locals, after the Munich grounds on which it is held. And not all across the Bavarian region’s capital city, as generally believed. Though unofficially speaking, canny business owners around Munich do piggy back on its popularity with their own ersatz versions.
But interestingly, it was misunderstanding number three that offered plenty of solace for the non-beer drinker in me as I made my debut at Oktoberfest a few years ago. Yes, I’m probably one of those rare beings who can’t tell the difference between a larger, an ale or a stout if my life depended upon it. Luckily for people like me, our lack of beer appreciation capabilities won’t and shouldn’t be a deterrent to enjoy the bounties of Oktoberfest that is so much more than just beer.
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While there is little doubt that tall steins of ice-cold beer are at the vortex of all things at Oktoberfest, there is a delicious range of back-up acts that ably support the drinking, providing some much-needed fuel to keep chugging on. These take the form of other libations on offer at Oktoberfest like wine, raddlers (a refreshing drink made by combining beer and lemonade, much like a shandy), various fruit flavoured schnapps and my favourite of all time—morello cherry kirschwasser, simply called kirsch which is a very traditional colourless brandy made from the double distillation of the aforementioned morello cherries.
There’s also plenty to eat for those of us who prefer to eat, far more than drink! Ever the pork lover, the various beer halls at die Wiesn had plenty in store for me and my callously carnivorous appetite. If there is one dish that defines the whole Oktoberfest spirit of sitting together in a beerhall tent, while listening to the strains of a four-piece Bavarian-style Oompah band, then that dish would have to be schweinshaxe or roasted pork shank. This juicy, meat-heavy dish is a whole roasted shank that’s first brined and then smoked before it’s roasted to perfection, crispy skin et al and served with tiny, raw, red radishes called radi.
My love for the “wurst" things in life got deliverance with the wide range of delicious German (mostly pork) sausages called würstl. Handy to eat, either impaled on a wooden skewer or cut up into pieces and served with its ‘plate-mates’ of sweet mustard and pickled cabbage called sauerkraut, there is something about a wurst that defines my first Oktoberfest experience. I soon learned that some of the fest’s most popular wurst iterations are the creamy, white weisswurst and the snapping skin bratwurst, that’s best had mit brot or with bread. But for the adventurous, there’s always the blutwurst (blood sausage) or the liver-rich leberwurst.
Giving me vague tastes of the desi flavours was the currywurst. One of the most non-traditional spins on a classic wurst, this Indian cuisine-inspired sausage not only has spices blended into its meat mixture, but it is also served atop a bed of fries. With a sweetish, creamy curry sauce and a dusting of mild curry powder sprinkled atop before serving.
As the token non-porcine snack at Oktoberfest, I relished the grilled skewered fish called steckerlfisch. Similar to the ones found on the streets in South East Asia, steckerlfisch sees small, whole fish like fingerling, trout and the oily mackerel first marinated in a mixture of oil, garlic and spices and then skewer-grilled vertically on a spit. The norm there is to eat it whole (bones included).
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It wouldn’t be an exaggeration for me to say that the significance of beer at Oktoberfest, is equal to the importance of the humble and ubiquitous pretzel. Accompanying everything from a plate of wursts to a hock of schweinshaxe, or simply enjoyed on its own, the wheat dough-based baked snack with a crunchy, blistered, rock salt-studded exterior cannot be missed at the fest. Interestingly, the pretzel has its own annual festival called ‘Brezelfest’ held in the city of Speyer in the Upper Rhine region around the second weekend of July.
A terrific way to stave off all those meat sweats and beer burps is to buy yourself a small paper bag of another one of Oktoberfest’s munchy treats aka cinnamon-sugar roasted almonds or gebrannte mandeln. And you don’t even have to search for them. The aroma of the freshly roasting nuts coated in cinnamon and crystal vanilla sugar will automatically draw you to them. Though almonds are the most popular nuts, one can also nosh on a handful of similarly roasted and candied pecans, walnuts and even cashew nuts.
For those of you, like me, who can’t resist freshly baked cookies, lebkuchenherz will also define your Oktoberfest feasting. These ginger bread cookies are generally found fashioned in a heart shape and frosted with luridly-coloured royal icing. Often coated in dark chocolate and strung up together with ribbons to form a cookie garland of sorts, they contain both candied and ground ginger in their batter, making them a decidedly pungent treat.
Ever the lover of dumplings and pancakes, I found a neat little cache of them at die Wiesn. The most ubiquitous of them being the semmelknödel. Though these large, almost fist-sized dumplings can be made from either potato or flour, given the Germans’ love for all things spud, semmeknödel are made from the former. While I believe that they may be Central European and more specifically Hungarian in origin (where they are simply called knödel), Germany has lovingly co-opted them into the fold of Oktoberfest staples, best enjoyed with a sprinkling of chopped parsley, and had either on their own or alongside a hearty stew.
Doused in a creamy mushroom sauce, käsespätzle or cheese noodles are the festive version of the German egg pasta-like noodle dish called spätzle. Here, they are given a fillip as the freshly boiled noodles are coated with a mixture of both the mild and creamy cottage cheese and the sharp quark cheese in equal measure.
Adapting itself to both sweet and savoury iterations, reiberdatschi or fluffy griddle potato pancakes are found at Oktoberfest topped with a sprinkling of bacon bits and drizzled with sour cream. For a yummy sweet snack, team it with a side of pureed apple sauce and freshly whipped cream.
Very different from reiberdatschi, not least of all for the fact that it doesn’t contain any potato and is undoubtedly a dessert, the shredded pancake called kaiserschmarrn is an Austrian import that has long crossed borders into Germany, becoming an Oktoberfest must-have. It gets its name from the Austrian Kaiser Franz Joseph I—who is said to have loved this kind of pancake—and is made from wheat flour and fried into small bits that are then dusted with powdered sugar and served with either apple sauce or a cherry compote on the side.
- FIRST PUBLISHED20.09.2023 | 09:00 AM IST